Unlike I John, which was written as a public document to be circulated among groups of churches, II John is directed to a specific local church. It is written as a personal letter rather than as a treatise. Interestingly, it basically summarizes the message of I John. Many of the same themes appear and warnings about the heretics and their teaching are repeated.
The length of the letter is probably limited by the size of a single sheet of papyrus. With their similar length it is likely that both II and III John are written this way.
It is possible that the church this letter is addressed to has read the first letter. Since that letter was meant to be distributed, this church could presumably have received it. Even so, John apparently sees the need to write to its members personally and address their issues directly. This probably means the church is in special danger from the heretics or that its problems are more severe. The comment in verse 4 that only some of the members walk in truth lends credence to this theory. His readers are perhaps very fragile and he writes to encourage and warn them.
John takes the time to identify himself as the author – something he did not do in I John. Instead of mentioning his name, however, he identifies himself simply as the elder. Apparently his identity and status as the leader of the church are well known such that he does not have to use his name.
The identity of the chosen lady is somewhat confusing. Some think she is an actual person while others believe this is John’s way of addressing a church. That she is a church makes more sense since the letter as a whole is written without any obvious personal references (as compared to the third letter). Also, in verses 6, 8, and 10 he addresses the readers in the plural rather than in the singular. The conclusion of the letter also makes more sense if the addressee is a church. The chosen sister in verse 13 would match the chosen lady of verse 1. If this interpretation is correct, the lady and her children refer to the church and its members.
Note his use of the word truth – something he referenced repeatedly in I John. He loves the lady and her children in truth. Others who know the truth also love the church. The reason they love the church is for the sake of the truth. What is the truth? The truth in I John refers to the gospel message (2:21-22) as well as to Jesus Himself (5:20). We who are saved by the gospel of Jesus Christ love others who are saved by the gospel of Jesus Christ (and ultimately do so because God is love and loved us first – 4:19). When we know the truth, we love. If we do not love, we apparently do not know the truth. We are to love our neighbors generally but we have a special love for others in the faith.
The truth abides in us and will be with us forever. Abides is another word John used extensively in the first letter. When we are God’s child we abide in Him and He abides in us (3:24). When we abide in Him we abide in truth – and this truth is ours forever because God is eternal.
Out of this truth comes the blessing – grace, mercy and peace will be with us. It is interesting that he does not say “be to you” – he pronounces a blessing on himself and his readers instead of just the readers. The grace, mercy and peace come from the Father and the Son (whose fellowship John wanted to share with the readers of the first letter – 1:1-3) and stem from the truth and love that each child of God possesses.
John begins the main body of the letter with a sobering statement. He says he was glad to find some of the church members walking in truth. He does not say how he knows this information – perhaps it is from a recent visit or someone has brought him news. He mentions this to encourage the assembly, but it is also sobering that he cannot say all members are walking in truth. This means there are people participating in the local body who do not walk in truth. They perhaps look like everyone else and attend the meetings but are not truly walking as they should. Based on what he said in I John, it is probably accurate to assume John does not consider them believers (and we should understand that nothing has changed today – any local body has its share of members not walking in truth).
Verse 5 is similar to I John 2:7 in referencing a new versus old commandment. He referred several times in the first letter to the original message his readers heard – the gospel – versus the message of the heretics. Here he reminds the church that included in the old commandment of the gospel is the command to love one another. The gospel always includes love – love for God which then results in love for others.
In verse 6 he defines love. Love is walking according to His commandments. In I John 3:23 John defined the commandment of God as believing in the name of the Son and loving one another. In 5:2 he said we know we love the children of God when we love God and observe His commandments. So to love is to obey, and to obey is to love. When we obey God’s commandments, we show we love Him; when we love Him we love others; and when we love others it shows we abide by God’s commandments.
Thus we must walk in the truth (4) and love one another (5) and when we walk in truth we will love one another (6).
John now rehearses the charges against the heretics and reinforces why it is so important for the believers to walk in the truth. The heretics are deceivers who deny that Jesus has come in the flesh (note the verb – acknowledge Jesus as coming in the flesh – His status is ongoing). As he said in 2:18-19, the heretics were at one time part of the assembly but have since left and gone out into the world to deceive others. Because they deny the divinity of Christ they are antichrists.
Note that verse 7 begins with the conjunction For. John connects the discussion of the deceivers to the admonition to walk in the truth which precedes it. It is vital to walk in the truth for many deceivers have gone out into the world. We must walk in the truth so as not to be deceived by what is not the truth.
He warns the assembly not to fall into believing the lies of the heretics lest they lose what we have accomplished (some translations read what you have accomplished). John wants to make sure his spiritual children do not get led away by the deceivers. He does not want his and their work for the gospel to be in vain. He does not want them to endanger their full reward. The reference to the reward could mean that believers will suffer loss at the Judgment if they are deceived. However, based on his warnings in I John and also on verse 9, he more likely means the ones who follow after the heretics show they are not truly of the assembly – they do not have the promise of eternal life. It is imperative to walk in the truth and not be deceived because of the eternal ramifications.
In verse 9 John makes the case against the heretics even clearer. They have left behind the original teaching of the gospel – the teaching of Christ – and so do not have God. In I John 2:24 John urged his readers to let that abide in you which you heard from the beginning – if what you heard from the beginning abides in you, you also will abide in the Son and in the Father. The heretics go too far and leave behind the original teaching. They deny the gospel message and claim a higher knowledge. The believer who stays within the original message has both the Father and the Son. No minced words here – those who stay true to the original gospel message abide in God. Those who leave behind the original message do not have God at all. There is no such thing as having God without having the Son. The heretics deny Jesus but claim to believe in God – John makes sure his readers know this is not possible (5:10).
He continues the warning by telling the assembly not to even allow one of the heretics into their houses. He likely refers to itinerant preachers who travel from town to town and need lodging. He said in verse 7 that the deceivers have gone out into the world, so they apparently travel and spread their false teaching. Their theology is so poisonous and the ramifications of following it so dire, that John does not want the believers to allow the false teachers even to walk in their door (this could also mean not allowing them into the church as the church itself may meet in a house).
He does not even want the church members to give the false teachers a greeting. Greetings in this culture are more than simple “hellos.” A greeting as John means it likely includes a blessing – similar to how he began this letter. To greet someone in this way is to collaborate with him – to express agreement with him. John wants the believers to have nothing to do with the deceivers. He who greets a false teacher participates in his evil deeds.
It is interesting to compare John’s words with Jesus’ words. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told His followers they should greet their friends and enemies alike – otherwise they were no better than the Gentiles (Matt 5:47). Later, He told the disciples when He sent them out that they should give their greeting to any house they stayed in that was worthy. If it was not worthy, they were to let their greeting of peace return to them (Matt 10:12-15). Taking all the admonitions together, we can see that as believers we are to love our enemies and be kind to them, but we are not to risk harm to the gospel or to our eternity. There is a difference in responsibility toward those who oppose us personally versus those who are actively opposing God and seeking to deceive. We are to be kind to one and completely avoid the other.
It also pays to remember the type of person John refers to. He is not writing about someone who believes wrong theology. He is warning about a teacher – someone actively spreading false doctrine. There is a difference between extending kindness and fellowship to someone who is lost or does not believe and doing the same for someone who is an official representative of evil. We must act in love toward those who are lost and seek to tell them the truth. But that is very different from giving kindness and encouragement to one whose vocation is to actively spread lies and bring others into his heresy.
John has reached the end of the papyrus. He has more to say but wants to say it in person rather than write it. Similar to the purpose in writing that he expressed in I John 1:4, he wants to come to them that your joy may be made full. Fellowship with each other in the truth of the Father and the Son is always an occasion of joy. This goes along with his greeting in verse 1 – those who are in the truth have a special bond with others who are in truth.
He ends by giving them a greeting from their sister church – their chosen sister. This is likely the church that John writes from.
If this letter is in fact John’s attempt to encourage and warn a church in danger, it is worth noting what He thinks are the most important items to stress with only limited space to write. He boils down the message of the first letter to the most vital issues.
- The truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ abides in us and will never leave us.
- Those who walk in the truth love others and love God by obeying God’s commands.
- We must walk in the truth so as not to be deceived by false teaching.
- Those who deny Jesus do not have God.
This really returns to the three truths of assurance he listed in I John. Believe in the Son, obey God’s commands, and love God and others. Nothing is more important for the believer than these three truths and they always come together.
The ultimate message of II John is to hold fast to the purity of the gospel. Any doctrine that questions the life and work of the Son must be rejected. The church cannot survive if its very basis of belief is undermined. There is no gospel if the Son is not included.
We will experience a pressure to dilute the message of Christ that is no different from the pressure faced by the Johannine world. John’s followers felt acute pressure from the sophisticated halls of Hellenistic academe – not to mention the popular voices of the marketplace – to reduce the person of Christ into someone less than He was. John calls his followers to stand firm, and he would have us do the same. (Gary M. Burge, The Letters of John; The NIV Application Commentary; 236.)